Time to Start Over: First, Face Delusion

Two facts make any remaining Adventist self-satisfaction delusional. One concerns burgeoning disgust with religion, or at least indifference to it. The other concerns the collective Adventist rejection of doctrinal humility; by refusing to grow, we cut our connection to reality and become irrelevant. These are both threats to our future. It is no idle question, therefore, to ask: Over the long run, can this community be saved? The COVID crisis, with its disruption of church life, is as good a time as any to think this through. We may suppose that religions are hard to kill, but failed communities that now seem like mere outcroppings of fanaticism suffuse Christian history.

Ronald F. Inglehart, of the University of Michigan, has for a dozen years been studying “religious trends.” Reflecting “data on religious trends in 49 countries,” he and a research colleague concluded that between 1981 and 2007, the thesis that industrialization and the spread of scientific knowledge would undermine religiosity appeared to be false, or at least unproven. Although “most high-income countries became less religious” during this period, in 33 of the 49 countries people became “more religious.” But now, in a just-published Foreign Affairs article that anticipates a forthcoming book, Inglehart presents evidence that, for the period 2007-2019, religiosity has declined in all but five of those 49 countries. The “most dramatic shift away from religion” has occurred in America. Survey response shows that on a scale of 1 (“Not at all important”) to ten (“Very important”), the “mean rating” Americans give to the “importance of God in their lives” dropped from 8.2 to 4.6. Inglehart calls this an “astonishingly sharp decline.” At a minimum, it tells us that religious belief faces, at least for the present, an increasingly indifferent environment.

I need not belabor the threat to Adventist life. It’s a commonplace now that many members, and especially many young people, are losing interest in the church of their mothers and fathers.

As to the rejection of theological humility, consider just five Adventist convictions that are now breaking under the weight of our own stubbornness and self-deception.

First, Ellen White. The evidence for her insight and prophetic leadership is overwhelming; her achievements outrank any of our own. But the evidence that her perspective should settle all disputes — an assumption still upheld, at least in practice, in leadership circles — is non-existent. Conventional obeisance to her every word scorns common sense, even her own common sense, and if we don’t face this, and move on, we cannot flourish. Those who cannot face it threaten our future.

Or consider the genesis of things. Evidence for “creation,” not sheer happenstance, as accounting for the universe is at least suggestive. Our world evokes wonder; no one, certainly, can explain, on purely naturalistic grounds, consciousness or agency, or even physical matter and the laws that govern it. But evidence for “young earth” creationism is, once more, nonexistent, nor is it required by scripture. Again, conventional orthodoxy scorns common sense. The Bible bears indispensable witness to the sacredness of human life and the plausibility of hope, yet we sully that witness with contentious speculation. How long can that continue to work?

Evidence for the risen Christ’s relocation, in 1844, to the heavenly sanctuary’s most holy place depends on tortured exegesis that no one, outside our own circle, takes at all seriously. What is more, the accompanying view that Christ then commenced a final “investigative” judgment denies divine omniscience and creates, among the faithful, debilitating insecurity. Under this doctrine’s alarming light, you either wallow in fear and self-loathing or lapse like a fool into self-adulation; or maybe you suffer from a weirdly conflicted mishmash of both. At the same time, the literalism of this view distracts from the New Testament conviction that the living Christ is present in the church and in the world, not ensconced away in a needless bookkeeping exercise. But influential leaders and evangelists persist in regarding “1844” as rock-bottom Adventism. Even if some people do, by personality, gravitate to self-bracing apocalyptic speculations, for anyone who is thoughtful the persistence of this doctrine can only sharpen the swerve into religious indifference.

Apocalyptic consciousness pervades much of holy writ, and protects any attentive community from uncritical veneration of worldly authority, political or ecclesiastical or otherwise. Such consciousness is a reminder that the divine kingdom is nowhere fully embodied, least of all where self-satisfaction disdains repentance and distorts all seeing. But the dominant Adventist eschatology has blunted the moral point of biblical apocalyptic. It has made Daniel and Revelation a repository of secret knowledge instead of a stimulus to renewal and lived hope. It has reduced spiritual life to a means of escape and church mission largely to talk. At its most extreme, this eschatology makes the divine creation less a garden to care for than a bus stop to elsewhere: earth’s future is fixed; no initiative can bend its arc. Under the sway of such deadening divine determinism, peacemaking, which Jesus put at the center of Christian mission, is, in fact, pointless. Some may say, of course, that I am here painting with a brush too broad, but the portrayal is recognizably Adventist. This eschatology dominates in conventional evangelism; it dominates at most General Conference sessions. While the biblical way of being Adventist could renew religious conviction, the dominant one fosters resignation — and irrelevance.

One more example of doctrinal stubbornness and self-deception is what we say, or don’t say, about the Bible. The first statement in our official account of Adventist beliefs declares that the Bible is the “written Word of God,” but the statement never acknowledges that the living Word of God is Jesus Christ. The two testaments are the gift of divine inspiration, as 2 Timothy 3:16 declares, but an “inspired,” or “God-breathed,” document is not itself divine. Christian scripture nowhere attributes divinity either to inanimate ink and paper or to inspired authors who are themselves human. As Bible texts well known within Adventist life unmistakably attest, final authority rests with the risen Christ (Matthew 28:18); Christ alone, by explicit contrast with other contenders, is the “exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3); Christ alone is the Word made “flesh” (John 1:14); Christ alone the church’s “head” and “measure” (Ephesians 4:13, 15).

To Bible-believing Christians, then, the Bible truly is “the written Word of God”; all of it truly is profitable for “teaching” and “training in righteousness.” But Christ alone is God’s human face, Christ alone the living Word. Overlooking this has facilitated the use of scripture to validate misogyny, apartheid, and genocide. Yet we now, at least officially, do overlook it. When the sense of religion’s moral failure exacerbates indifference to God, that mistake threatens not only our witness but also our very future. Adventist attention to Psalm 127 could hardly matter more: “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.

I intend over the next several months to offer occasional, brief reflections on what it might mean for Adventist doctrine to undergo a desperately needed reset. I sally forth not as a vandal but as a part of the family. For some five years now, I have belonged, indeed, to a tiny congregation whose members, unlike me, regularly consult Doug Batchelor. But they continue to welcome and watch after my wife and me. Now and then I am their Sabbath-morning preacher. I allow that I have always taken care to bear my witness in a way that builds up and does not tear down. Perhaps I have been careful to a fault; I do grasp, certainly, the difficulty our theological problems put in front of us. Still, I think, or at least hope, that if we commit ourselves to unity, and if we acknowledge that doctrinal inertia cannot disappear as if by magic, God’s grace can shift us toward humility and fresh understanding. I think, or at least hope, that so far from edging toward irrelevance, we may recover and bear, even amid secularizing drift, a witness that truly matters.

 

Charles Scriven is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10720
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Needless to say, this is what all Christians (more so Adventists) believe.

I don’t believe there is any thing stubborn about what our church believes and teaches about the Bible.

This has been the stumbling block for Adventism!

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Thanks for the thoughtful analysis!! Looking forward to future articles.

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Is that the only one?

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This is a human problem, not just an Adventist one, and is glaringly evident across Evangelical Christianity in America, if not the world.

Depends on what is meant by “religiosity”, I suppose. If what is meant is a "form of Godliness but denying the power there of, then this is definitely a positive trend rather than a negative one. If what is meant is a move away from religion entirely, well, Maybe that’s still a positive thing. Religion can become so toxic to humanity that a reset is necessary. Drop it all for a time and come back to it with renewed understanding and dedication.

I look forward to these thoughts you intend to share.

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More importantly, what is it about our church environment that cultivates and fosters these kinds of mental structures and what is it about our church dynamics that fast tracks these individuals to leadership position?

Character changes are individual choices. But choices for church leadership depends on church members.

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More and more I’m beginning to question the truth of that statement. I used to believe it but not so sure anymore. I see a select few presenting the constituent representatives a single name for an up or down vote, with the expectation of a rubber stamp approval of that candidate. It seems to me that the membership is pretty much cut out of leadership selection.

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Thank you Charles, I really agree fully with the need to change. Future discussions on this much needed and timely subject will be great. True Christology should be the hope of the world, but like so many religions before it, the early church fell into the trap of authoritarianism and superiority (the reasons for this could fill text books I am sure). Preserving the status quo ($$ and power) at all costs is very high on the list of goals and objectives at any corporate level. I am encouraged by the fact that a majority of persons in the world seem to understand and prefer the Loving God that Christ testifies to. True Christology is simple but complexities are added to confuse and separate groups into those who “know” and the others, easier to control with fear and guilt. Enough said, looking forward to more.

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Doug is the living ‘oracle’ for the modern Adventists!

Apparently so, to the detriment of Adventism and Christ like values in general.

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For whatever reasons, the generations that succeeded Charles and mine cannot reconcile several long-held Christian teachings with their own experience and rational reflection. SDA’s yes, but others in the Evangelical fundamentalist world as well. The idea that a loving God would punish the lost with either an eternally burning hell (a monstrous idea on its face) or even annihilate millions of people who “failed” seems difficult to reconcile with the gospel and some biblical passages.

The notion that God utterly rejects LGBTQ individuals and their loving relationships is difficult to swallow. How can any human being be rejected by God for simply being who they are? Sexuality in loving, committed relationships is not promiscuous sex; so how it can be wrong?

Evangelical (including to some extend SDA) inability to fully affirm the humanity intrinsic value of “others” than we, whether by religion, gender, color, education, and so on, is repulsive to young people. And it should be. The musings of a Franklin Graham are an insult to the gospel, for example.

What I keep hearing from younger generations is that “doctrine” is not important; only loving people and social justice matter. THEY WOULD RATHER WORK FOR THE POOR THAN ARGUE ABOUT VERY POOR THEOLOGICAL FORMULATIONS THAT SEEM TO HAVE NO RELEVANCE FOR DAILY LIFE. I feel the same way, though I do believe that “bettering” theological beliefs leads to spiritual depth and deeper love of God and others.

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It’s not limited to young people, though. It may be that the corporate church hasn’t really noticed, as usually people don’t go through the effort to remove their names from the books, but my experience is that the majority of my friends have left the church. I went to SDA schools through college - as did almost all these friends - and I think about 70% have left the church.

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i suspect though mostly still believers in Christology if not religion. There are so many cultures in the world, they will cause division if all of them are not accepted as equal (that old superiority thing again. This is the essence of what Paul tried to tell the Jerusalem church. Guess who won in the end. Now we have a chance to come back to individuals, all different but all the same. Do you think we can avoid the pitfalls that have ruined Freedom throughout history. So much pain and bondage, do we really want to go back. Christology is vastly different from religion.

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This assertion seemed a little odd to me, so I looked up Christology. It means, “the branch of Christian theology relating to the person, nature, and role of Christ.”

From that, I’d say that one doesn’t exactly believe in Christology, but instead one may have a belief regarding the nature of Christ. There are may variants to these beliefs, most of which are different that what the SDA church teaches.

Still, I know at least a few who are no longer Christians, though they believe God exists, in some fashion. Others have joined other more mainline churches. Others are not practicing any faith. Others are now Atheists or Agnostics.

Thanks for pointing that out. I use the term more to distinguish between cultural additions to Christ’s teachings (religion) and the actual teachings as far as they are included in scripture. I seriously think we still have never gotten a clear view of the nature of God. We cling to authoritarian tactics to achieve exclusionary results (religion again) The truth is that Christ’s clarification of God’s character in his life here restores trust, it justifies rest and it is truly Good News. God’s unconditional love and freedom come without precondition.

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You mean we don’t have to follow the 28 not-so-fundamental beleifs? Shudder.

You sound a bit like Marcus Borg. I think you (and many here) would like this video. We watched it in SS the other week:

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In the immortal words of Joseph Bates “Brother Snow has truth for us from the Lord” (see “Tell the World”,youtube, 51:20 min mark), here is a proposal for normalizing our theology so that we can proudly take our place in the forefront of the multi denominational Christian Church.
1844 was not a mistake, it was the beginning of the movement to restore the Biblical Decalogue, and to reconcile the Biblical family.
Daniel 8:13-14 should be translated: …Perpetual holy Shabbat will be restored to the Sanctuary the Christian Church.
Typology of Leviticus 16:5 is: Esau, Jacob, Isaac, Jacob is the scapegoat,
this typology points to Golgotha the global once for all Day of Atonement.
In my previous posts i have given explanation for the above, be happy to clarify further.

Can you explain this statement to me. Somehow you lost me on the spiritual death vs love of God and others. Please? And thanks :slight_smile:

Edit:
LOL!!! Never mind. I was reading the word “depth” as “death”. Now that I’ve seen the error of my ways, there’s no need to explain!!! hahaha

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Thanks, I had not heard before. Certainly rings bells for me.